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Council ponders public safety budget issues

Thursday, August 6, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Council members heard the latest budget presentations Wednesday from the emergency services departments, yielding few surprises from representatives from the Austin Police Department, Fire Department and EMS. Each made a case for their achievements in the last year, the budget cuts they would undertake and what challenges lay ahead.


Perhaps the most intriguing information related to the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employees Association’s recent calls for three new ambulances to be added to the fleet. Emergency Medical Services Director Ernie Rodriguez and EMS director of finance John Ralston represented the department.


They touted the department’s improved response times in FY 2008 and 2009. The department’s goal is to arrive at the highest level emergencies in nine minutes and 59 seconds or less, 90 percent of the time. In 2004, Rodriguez said response time met that only 82 percent. Last year it had improved to 89.97 percent. He said the department saved $3.1 million while doing that.


EMS needs to put at least three more ambulances on the street today,” he told council. “We’ve done quite a lot to control our budget and contain our costs and all of that but we really need to find a way to add three ambulances,” he said. Workloads are increasing to the point where paramedics are getting burned out he said. The budget proposal includes equipment needed to outfit three ambulances. The proposal also unfreezes seven positions that he said, “would give us a start toward staffing those ambulances.” He said that the ballpark figure for 11 more staff which would bring the three ambulances up to full staffing would be around $868,000.


Council Member Chris Riley asked about using other types of vehicles that would allow the city to reduce response times but may not be standard ambulances. Rodriguez said there were three or four different specifications for vehicles, and that they will be testing out smaller units that would still allow for the same space for patient care. The current large ambulances cost over $190,000 with another $75,000 worth of gear. The smaller ambulances range from $83,000 “sprinter” vehicles to $160,000 mid-size units.


Council Member Bill Spelman also took up the issue of extra ambulances, “I think three is unlikely but what affect would one more unit have on your performance measures?” Rodriguez said one more would probably allow them to achieve the slight improvement needed to push their response time into the 90th percentile but said the goal for next year was to bring response time down to 8 minutes and 59 seconds.


Steve Stewart, EMS association president told In Fact Daily, it seemed to him that the city was willing to add one ambulance. “The way it stands, to meet that response goal, it was pretty clear we needed three ambulances,” he said. Stewart added, “We understand they may not be able to go the whole way this year. If they can come up with one that would help and we’d be happy with that.” He noted that if the emergency responders wanted to meet their response time goals they would still eventually need the additional vehicles.


After the briefing, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said his first priority for all departments was to restore funding so that employees would not be required to take the furloughs recommended by City Manager Marc Ott and then to reinstate the longevity pay. He said EMS employees had told him that restoring that the longevity pay, known as service incentive pay, was their first priority.


Last year’s EMS revenue was $23.2 million, while this year they expect to increase that by $3.7 million while at the same time dropping total expenditures from $44.5 million to $43.16 million.  Much of that additional revenue is from transport fee increases, Rodriguez said. 


Police Chief Art Acevedo handled the APD budget presentation that included a $5 million increase in total expenditures to $258.3 million. The department highlighted its need for body armor for 525 officers, and lab instruments for forensic analysis. The largest budget cut was the $4.1 million contract amendment to maintain current police salaries. APD was able to save another $482,000 from operational efficiencies shifting staffing around the holidays and reducing three commander positions.


Acevedo said Council should brace for a forthcoming report on the antiquated dashboard video cameras, which use analogue tapes only available from a single company in China. As well, he characterized the mileage on the vehicle fleet as “embarrassing” with many of the cars recording over 100,000 miles on them. Acevedo also decried Austin losing out on the federal COPS grant, saying that the funds went to cities with higher crime rates. At the end of the presentation Acevedo advocated strongly for the continuance of the cadet class, which seems likely to move forward this fall.


Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr handled the Fire Department’s presentation. The department has lowered its revenue $100,000 and expenditures by $1.2 million giving them a base budget of $125.8 million. The FY10 budget will not include any reductions to service, in fact adding a new station in Avery Ranch. The budget proposes to eliminate five vacant positions that are civilian positions such as an on-scene photographer.


The primary point of contention was the addition of a new “quint” fire truck. These trucks combine the pumping engine with a ladder engine enabling the city to save money on staffing – the quint uses four firefighters as opposed to eight that would be needed for two vehicles. Riley quizzed Kerr about this decision saying he had heard form numerous firefighters who thought the quints were difficult to maneuver and not as effective as the two-vehicle strategy. Kerr told council that the department was only replacing one aged quint and would not be adding new ones to the cumulative number throughout the city.

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